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June 17, 2013

Tarp's Monday Thoughts

Texas A&M consistently finished behind Texas and Oklahoma in recruiting since the arrival of head coaches Mack Brown and Bob Stoops in the late 1990's. However, that still didn't stop the Aggies from having productive offenses during that time frame. With the proliferation of the spread offense throughout the Texas high school ranks, there always seemed to be a sufficient amount of high quality skill position talent to go around for more than just a couple of programs and less and less of the state's talent found its way to the defensive side of the ball. As a result, the Big 12 as a whole became more and more of an offensive league and like most programs in the conference the Aggies benefitted from the trend. The 2005 through 2007 A&M teams were in the top 20 nationally in rushing and the 2009 through 2012 units were in the top 25 nationally in total offense. The Aggies even had an impressive array of skill talent go to the NFL including quarterbacks Reggie McNeal, Stephen McGee, Jerrod Johnson, and Ryan Tannehill.

On the flip side, the state started producing fewer and fewer quality defenders, especially in the front seven. Although A&M's offenses compared favorably nationally with most high powered attacks, Texas and Oklahoma (along with help from out of state programs such as LSU) were typically winning big and playing in BCS bowls. Defensive prospects like to play for winners that put people in the pros and those two descriptions fit the Sooners and Longhorns. As a result, those programs dominated defensive recruiting within the state of Texas and left the Aggies searching for prospects that those schools didn't want due to a lack of size, speed, or that they would have to be projected to a different position than what they played in high school.

This troubling trend had begun for A&M when Ty Warren, Jerod Penright, Sammy Davis, and Terrence Kiel came aboard in the 1999 recruiting class. That gave A&M a dominant defensive tackle/end, a quality pass rusher, a lockdown corner, and a far ranging free safety. However, when they graduated in 2002, the last of the great Wrecking Crew defenses under R.C. Slocum and Jackie Sherrill went with them.

Between 2003 and 2011, the Aggies landed just nine Rivals 250 prospects on the defensive side of the ball. Even worse, A&M didn't do a lot with the quality talent that it acquired. Prospects like Chris Smith, William Morrisey, Derrick Stephens, Paul Freeney, Ivan Robinson (still on the team), Anthony Lewis, and Rod Davis never started a game. The most productive of the group were Justin Warren and Tony Jerod-Eddie.

It's not to say that A&M didn't have some success during that time. Defensive end Von Miller weighed 210 pounds coming out of high school and was not offered by Texas, yet helped lead the Aggies to the best season of the 2003 to 2011 span, won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker, and was the number two pick in the 2011 NFL draft. However, the talent and development on that side of the ball paled in comparison to that at Texas and Oklahoma. For example, Texas signed 60 players between 2002 and the present who were Rivals 250 prospects. That's an average of five a year and that total often included the state's top rated front seven defenders including DT Malcolm Brown in 2012, linebacker Steve Edmond in 2011, Jackson Jeffcoat in 2010, Sergio Kindle in 2006, defensive tackle Rodrique Wright in 2002, and end Alex Okafor in 2009. Oklahoma's signed 48 Rivals 250 prospects nationally in that time including R.J. Washington, Demarcus Granger, and Gerald McCoy (all of whom were the top rated prospect in the country at their position).

The Aggies couldn't stop the run against quality opponents outside of the Big 12 and couldn't stop passing teams within it. Due in large part to these trends, the Aggies finished just once in the top 25 between 2002 and 2011 even while they were finishing in the top 25 nationally in recruiting. Their classes always included a sprinkling of four stars on defense that neither the Longhorns or Sooners wanted. In contrast (and in an increasingly pass happy league), Oklahoma and Texas had the front seven talent to stop the run, rush the passer, and consequently finish at or near the top in total defense. The Sooners and Longhorns won a couple of national titles, played for four more, and made multiple BCS appearances. Not only, the loss of a prospect like linebacker Corey Nelson in 2010 on signing day to the Sooners was considered a disaster. For Oklahoma and a depth chart full of four stars, it was more of a statement to take him away from A&M; for the Aggies, it was considered a real blow to their talent level.

However, things began to change in 2012 with the arrival of new A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin. Considered an offensive coach, Sumlin went out and stole four star corner Devante Harris from the Sooners after his arrival. He also went out and signed six defensive linemen. Although none of them were four star prospects, Sumlin understood the need for bodies at the position and made it a point of emphasis. It was an indication that once Sumlin got better coaches in place and improved A&M's record that things would be changing in front seven recruiting.

However, the change came faster than even Sumlin probably anticipated for two reasons. First, defensive line coach Terry Price was hired in the spring of 2012 after former coach Terrell Williams left to go to the NFL. Williams helped put together the 2012 class and helped kick start the 2013 class, but it was Price who cranked everything up a notch. A&M wound up signing four four-star rated defensive line prospects, taking Dallas Kimball defensive tackle Justin Manning away from Oklahoma, where his older brother DeMarcus Granger played. They also nabbed defensive end Daeshon Hall on signing day from Washington. In all, the Aggies signed 11 front seven defenders, understanding that quantity must go hand in hand with quality due to attrition, injuries, etc. In contrast, the Sooners signed seven prospects but only two of them were four stars. In addition, two of the seven (including four star DT Kerrick Huggins) have yet to hit campus due to academic issues. Texas signed no defensive tackles, losing five star A'Shawn Robinson to Alabama right before signing day and just three front seven prospects overall.

The disparity is getting even worse for 2014 and 2015. Oklahoma isn't even a serious contender for quality front seven prospects in Texas any longer and is leaving the Aggies and Horns to fight it out between themselves. However, it's been a one way battle so far. Texas has eight commits from front seven personnel and two of them are four stars; the Aggies have just two commitments but having signed a class of three four-star defensive tackles in 2013, A&M has focused moreso at defensive end in this class. They beat out Texas for Katy Seven Lakes' Jarrett Johnson and are considered the favorites for Arlington Martin's Myles Garrett and Arizona's Qualen Cunningham. They also beat out Texas for DT DeShawn Washington, who is considered the top tackle in the state for 2014. They've also obtained the lead for the best 2015 defensive tackles in the state in Gladewater's Daylon Mack and Cy Falls' Du'Vonte Lampkin.

Not only that, A&M is proving that it can do more with less with its current staff. The Aggies had just one four star in their front seven last season but finished seventh in scoring and rushing defense in the SEC. Texas had four stars at all but TWO spots in its front seven depth chart and finished in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 in scoring defense and eighth in a ten team league in rushing defense. Oklahoma started six players rated as four stars or better by Rivals in 2012 and finished fourth in scoring defense and ninth in rushing defense. Not only that, A&M destroyed the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl last January despite playing a six man front that included a true freshman making his first start (Alonzo Williams).

Mack Brown resurrected Texas in 1998 due in large part to Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams and Bob Stoops won a national title in 2000 with Heisman runner up Josh Heupel. However, once those players left, the Horns and Sooners stayed relevant nationally because of their front seven talent like Casey Hampton, Tommy Harris, and Gerald McCoy. Once Heisman winner Johnny Manziel leaves A&M, the Aggies are well positioned to stay relevant on a national level as well due to their front seven recruiting. All of this is occurring in a state where there is a premium on front seven defensive talent moreso than most places because the state produces so many quality offensive prospects which will continue to have a multiplier effect in recruiting for the dominant program on the field.

And right now, that dominant program is A&M.

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